More Steel Pain Coming to the U.S. as Chinese Prices Tank Again

  • Steel prices are rising in U.S. but falling again in China
  • It’s getting more appealing for U.S. buyers to turn to Asia

The U.S. may be facing more torment from cheap Chinese steel.

That’s because prices are soaring in America and sliding in China, making it attractive for U.S. construction firms, fridge makers and other users to import steel from the other side of the world - rather than buy locally.

Benchmark U.S. rates surged 73 percent this year as demand improved and the government imposed extra penalties aimed at preventing producers in China and other nations from dumping material. A property boom and more stimulus also helped revive Chinese prices this year, but a recent clampdown on commodity speculation and a renewed slump in iron ore, a key steel-making ingredient, has sent them tumbling again.

“The steel price charts look very scary,” said Seth Rosenfeld, a London-based steel analyst at Jefferies International Ltd. “The big question is how sustainable are the very high U.S. prices given the pullback you’ve seen in Chinese prices.”

Falling prices in China, which accounts for half of the world’s steel supply, is good news for consumers but bad for steelmakers such as ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel Corp., who have struggled to compete with what they claim are unfair shipments. Chinese exports that jumped 20 percent to a record 112 million metric tons in 2015 are running at a similar rate so far this year.

The impact has been far reaching. India’s Tata Steel Ltd. is trying to sell its unprofitable U.K. business and ArcelorMittal, the top producer with plants all around the world, has reported four straight annual losses.

While there are many types of steel, one price of hot-rolled coil in the U.S. is about $307 a ton more expensive than a similar product in China, the widest spread since 2011, Metal Bulletin Ltd. data show. That means it’s cheaper to buy from some Chinese companies -- even after including freight and trade tariffs -- than buying from U.S. producers.

While the U.S. introduced tariffs on some Chinese steel more than a decade ago, it recommended higher penalties for a wider range of products within the past year. Chinese producers may now face anti-dumping duties of more than 200 percent.

Even though that will help protect the U.S. steel industry, the threat of cheaper Chinese supplies will cap the recent rally, Rosenfeld said.

“U.S. prices are at or near their peak,” he said.

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